My Embed in Red

Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images (Limbaugh); Kris Connor/Getty Images (Beck); David S. Holloway/Getty Images (York); John Storey/AP (Savage). Photo-illustration by Jesse Lenz.

On the sixth day, I listened to Glenn Beck, and I saw that he was good. Or if not exactly good, then honest-to-God funny.

I had tuned in as part of a thought experiment then entering its final lap: an attempt to put myself in the Republican brain by spending a solid week listening to, watching, reading, surfing, and otherwise gorging on conservative media. As would also be true of an overdose of liberal media, it was lulling me into a stupor, and I was desperate for a jolt. Beck provided exactly that, in the form of comedy, and to my astonishment, I found myself laughing out loud—with him, not at him.

His subject was Clint Eastwood, who had stopped the show, so to speak, at the Republican National Convention the night before. Beck paid brief lip service to his party’s line—“I love Clint Eastwood”—but confessed he’d found the performance “painful to look at.” From that followed an extended comic riff, with studio sidekicks as straight men, in which he imagined the hasty backstage conference where a campaign strategist signed off on Clint’s solo act. In Beck’s fantasy, someone in the Romney camp did have qualms about letting an 82-year-old geezer vamp with an empty chair. But the skeptic had been overruled by a higher-up saying just “three magic words”—to wit, “It’s Clint Eastwood!” As in: “What could possibly go wrong? It’s Clint Eastwood!” Beck kept repeating this scenario with ever-more-manic variations, turning “It’s Clint Eastwood!” into a burlesque tagline akin to Gene Wilder’s crazed “No way out!” in The Producers (a Beck favorite). Only at the end of his shtick did politics intrude. Unless the person who said the three magic words “now has been terminated,” Beck said, he wouldn’t “trust Mitt Romney’s ability to run the country.” As he explained, it was only a small step from “It’s Clint Eastwood!” to “It’s Ben Bernanke!”—and the next thing you know, a Romney administration would be extending the term of the despised Fed chairman. He had a point.

If you are a Fox News–loathing liberal, chances are that you, like me, had not given much thought to Beck in the fifteen months since he and Fox parted ways and his heyday as a self-appointed generalissimo of the tea-party movement had passed. Since then, he has retreated into his own web bunker, the Blaze, and been largely forgotten by what Sarah Palin branded the “lamestream media.” But if he’s yesterday’s cause célèbre to the left, he remains a fixture in the right’s media firmament (and will soon be returning to television). His morning radio show, heard on more than 400 stations, attracts a cumulative weekly audience of at least 8.25 million listeners, according to the trade publication Talkers. That makes him the fourth-most-popular talk-show jock in the country, in a three-way tie for that spot with the conservative doomsayer Mark Levin and the (apolitical) money guru Dave Ramsey. The trinity of talk-radio giants at the top of the Talkers list are also right-wing icons: Rush Limbaugh (with 14.75 million listeners), Sean Hannity (14 million), and Michael Savage (8.75 million). You can devote every weekday cycling in succession through these four horsemen preaching a liberal apocalypse, with detours to second-tier conservative talkers like Neal Boortz, Michael Medved, and Hugh Hewitt whenever you feel like a palate cleanser. That’s what I did all week. After which I settled in with Fox’s prime-time schedule each night.

But in putting together a menu for my immersion in the right’s alternative media reality, I didn’t want to play the knee-jerk liberal game of shooting fish in a barrel. So while I surveyed all the usual fire-breathing suspects, including relative newcomers like Dana Loesch, the young Eve Harrington gaining on Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, I added highbrow and ­garden-variety conservative voices. (Though not David Frum, Andrew Sullivan, David Brooks, and others who are portrayed as conservatives by the Establishment press but are all but invisible in either mainstream or boutique conservative media.) And I specifically chose the week of the GOP convention for my 24/7 reconnaissance mission behind enemy lines. It’s no secret what the right thinks of Barack Obama and the likes of me. I wanted to eavesdrop on what conservatives say about their own.

What did I learn in my week imbibing the current installment of the Reagan revolution? I came away with empathy for those in the right’s base, who are often sold out by the GOP Establishment, and admiration for a number of writers, particularly the youngish conservative commentators at sites like the American Conservative and National Review Online whose writing is as sharp as any on the left (and sometimes as unforgiving of Republican follies) but who are mostly unknown beyond their own ideological circles. What many of the right’s foot soldiers and pundits have in common is their keen awareness that they got a bum deal in Tampa, a convention that didn’t much represent either their fiercely held ideology or their contempt for the incumbent. They know, too, that their presidential candidate is the Republican counterpart to Al Gore—not only in robotic personality but in his cautious hesitance to give full voice to the message of his troops. Even Paul Ryan, the right’s No. 1 living hero, let many of his fans down with his convention speech—not because he fudged facts but because he soft-pedaled his “big ideas” about small government once in the national spotlight. Ryan left some conservatives wondering if the only thing they gained from having him on the ticket was his name on a lousy T-shirt.

You would know little of this if you watched “liberal media” coverage of the convention. They missed much of the story or subsumed it to the soap-opera narrative of whether Romney would succeed in humanizing himself. Fox News was hardly better: It was in the tank with the GOP Establishment and the Romney campaign and largely stuck to the party’s preferred script. And so, like me, conservative voters went elsewhere to find conviction and news—to the radio and the Internet. However wacky, incendiary, or boorish the talk-show bloviators may be, the best of the bunch are not stupid and don’t hedge. The same is true of thoughtful bloggers at the other end of the media spectrum. It was at, the libertarian site, where you could find Nick Gillespie (in a rant about Lawrence O’Donnell) dismiss Mitch ­McConnell as “a career politician with next-to-zero personality and principles” and where you could learn from Matt Welch that Romney’s promise to repeal Obamacare was “the Republican version of ‘closing Guantánamo’—a nice bone for the base on your way toward regaining power, to be discarded upon reaching office.” (Welch has already been proved right.)

Poor Romney! His coterie of flacks—Medved, Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard, the Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin—was easily outnumbered by those on the right who treated him much as Chris Christie did in his keynote address: as a placeholder and a dutiful obligation. Damning Romney with faint praise became an entertaining convention-week parlor game. In The Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson saluted Mitt as “a good guy” only after cataloguing his “breathless, Eddie Attaboy delivery, that half-smile of pitying condescension in debates or interviews when someone disagrees with him, the Ken-doll mannerisms, his wanton use of the word ‘gosh.’ ” Mike Huckabee tried for a homespun maxim: “If you’ve just been diagnosed with a brain tumor, you honestly don’t care if your neurosurgeon is a jerk.” Romney “had to achieve adequacy,” wrote Peggy Noonan, and “he did.” Surely finer words were never written about Thomas Dewey.

If Romney was more a prince regent than a king at his own coronation, liberals might be cheered to learn that some of their least favorite GOP factions were reduced to the status of serfs. Social conservatives, led by Huckabee and the broadcaster Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, marginalized themselves by rallying around the politically toxic, Cro-Magnon Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin. The old Bush neocon cohort, though fastened like barnacles to the Romney campaign, was anathema to most everyone else. When Bill Kristol loudly complained about Romney’s failure to mention the Afghanistan War in his convention speech, he got far more traction with Democrats than Republicans. Romney’s neocon-ish foreign-policy bluster was mocked by analysts at the American Conservative as viciously as it was on liberal opinion pages. “Romney might be very good at making decisions,” wrote Daniel Larison, “but they would likely be ill-informed decisions.”

Another bête noire liberals can file and forget is Palin. Except for fleeting cameos fulfilling her waning Fox News contract, she was an also-ran in conservative media. So were the Republican elites (Jeb Bush, Bob Dole, Dan Quayle) who came out for a more inclusive GOP “big tent” on convention eve; the Establishment press lapped them up, predictably enough, but those in the existing Republican tent sneered. Bushes 41 and 43 have also been consigned to the memory hole along with Nixon, Ford, and every other Republican president except Reagan. (More than a few clueless bloggers naïvely held out hope that Nancy Reagan, now a frail 91, would be the convention’s mystery speaker.) John ­McCain was as welcome in Tampa as Banquo’s ghost; even Bill O’Reilly’s much-hyped prime-time interview with the 2008 standard-bearer was abruptly truncated for a generic podium speech by Romney campaign chairman Bob White. Beck, for his part, didn’t pretend to grant McCain the respect he accorded Eastwood, instead dismissing the “old soldier” as a relic who’d crept out of a time capsule to show “where we’ve been and where I don’t ever want to go again.”

If the only real positive passion at the convention was for Ryan—or the platonic possibility of Ryan as the young, hunky, and wonky reincarnation of an Ayn Rand demigod—there was more than enough anger at Democrats to fill any energy vacuum. What drives conservatives crazy (in addition, always, to Obama) are not populist attacks on their supply-side economic gospel or their dream of voucherizing Medicare. They firmly believe, as Ryan said on the podium, that they can win such arguments. It’s the charge that the GOP is a party of old white men waging a “war on women” that draws real blood. That’s especially the case when the ­charges are leveled by MSNBC, which now drives conservatives into the same paroxysms of anger and ridicule that Fox News engenders on the left. It’s the only nonconservative news outlet the right pays constant attention to.

To try to deflect the misogyny rap, some of the right’s louder voices decided the best defense was a good offense. “Akin was never accused of rape—unlike Clinton,” proclaimed the talk-show host and columnist Larry Elder. Everyone else was hoping that voters’ memories of transvaginal probes and the all-male House panel on contraception would just go away if Todd Akin did. Mary Matalin and Grover Norquist talked themselves into believing Akin’s departure was a certainty. We shall see.

The right’s racial defensiveness was reignited by a Monday-morning MSNBC grenade whose aftershocks would linger for days: Chris Matthews confronted the GOP chairman, Reince Priebus, over Mitt Romney’s pre-convention birther joke, accusing the party of playing “the race card.” Once the first wave of Matthews-bashing subsided, a defense emerged: How can anyone say Republicans lack diversity when there are so many fabulous Latino and African-­American speakers? This GOP refrain dates at least as far back as the 2000 convention in Philadelphia, where the blacks onstage (including a surreal bevy of gospel singers and break-dancers) threatened to outnumber those in the hall. Not much has changed. It was a Where’s Waldo? mission for even Fox to locate a nonwhite face in the convention crowd, unless the camera was trained on the delegations of Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, or the District of Columbia, all of which, preposterously enough, were given prime seats near the stage in Tampa.

As the week dragged on, the right tried to put the left on the defensive about race. The liberal press, it claimed, was both overhyping Hurricane Isaac to revive memories of black Americans abandoned during Katrina and underplaying the convention’s vast diversity. A story pushed by the Tucker Carlson site the Daily Caller reported that MSNBC was deliberately cutting away from the convention’s minority speakers. The only problem with this theory was that Fox News had ignored all the same speakers ­MSNBC did except one (the former Democratic congressman Artur Davis). Indeed, Fox dumped the much-prized Utah congressional candidate and diversity trifecta Mia Love—black, female, and Mormon—for none other than Hurricane Isaac.

I found it hard to tell whether the GOP really believes it’s being unfairly criticized for its homogeneous racial and ethnic makeup or just wants to play the victim card for political expediency: It knows it can’t win a national election without wooing back the Hispanics it has alienated with immigration jeremiads—and without whites who like the idea of America as a place where Obama can be president (even if they don’t like Obama). But even if it’s true that the GOP is earnestly trying to reach out to minorities, it’s clear it has no idea of how to do so. Herman Cain is still running neck and neck with Condoleezza Rice to be the party’s marquee black attraction; Neil Cavuto of Fox tried to jolly him into vying for Commerce or Treasury secretary in the next administration. Even now, the GOP seems oblivious to the fact that its alliance with Donald Trump, the nation’s preeminent birther, is enough to cancel out any serious outreach to African-Americans in 2012. Were it not for Isaac, Trump might have hijacked the convention on opening night.

The only explanation for why Mitt Romney and other Republican politicians would be seen in public with Trump is that they actually think he adds the imprimatur of a cool A-list showbiz celebrity. Such cluelessness about pop culture is endemic on the right. Watching the convention through conservative media, you are constantly reminded how much the GOP is isolated from the cultural mainstream. That’s a direct consequence of the party’s shortage of diversity and youth, and some on the right are bugged by it. Conservatives may fawn over Jon Voight, Chuck Norris, and Kid Rock as if they’re superstars, or believe that Ryan’s professed iPod playlist (AC/DC to Zeppelin) has hip cred. A National Review blogger may fantasize wistfully about how “you could hold a late-1980s SNL cast reunion” of Obama critics at the convention (total guest list: Dennis Miller, Victoria Jackson, Jon Lovitz). But this is all protesting too much. You had better believe it wounds conservatives that Chris Christie’s adoration of Bruce Springsteen isn’t reciprocated and that so many musicians whose songs have been played at Romney rallies, from the rapper K’naan to heavy-metal singer Dee Snider to the band Silversun Pickups, have demanded that the GOP cease and desist. It’s precisely this cultural insecurity that led conservative media to devote relentless attention throughout convention week to the modest box-office success of the anti-Obama documentary 2016. (Its opening-week gross was a quarter of that of Michael Moore’s Bush-trashing Fahrenheit 9/11.) It’s also this insecurity that led the starstruck Republican faithful to overreact to the news that Eastwood would grace their gathering—and then to be slow to recognize that his act, whatever its comic merits, had upstaged and blunted Romney’s speech on his big night.

Those few showbiz-savvy enough to instantly gauge the Eastwood fallout, led by Beck, were also savvy enough to brood about the convention’s overall lack of appeal in the broader cultural arena. Television viewership was tanking in comparison to 2008, and in the key 18-to-49 demographic, even the most highly rated coverage (on Fox News) fell behind both the TLC self-styled “redneck” reality series Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and, particularly galling for a party desperate to reclaim Hispanic voters, the nightly telenovelas on the Spanish-language channel Univision. The morning after opening night in Tampa, Beck fretted aloud about whether anyone had been watching at all. He was equally nettled by a study showing that conservatives “just don’t do viral stuff.” Saying that the right doesn’t share speeches like Ann Romney’s with friends and that the left does, he asked, “Are we even in the game at this point?” I thought Beck was being histrionic, but my own anecdotal experience that week bore him out: The Twitter feeds I followed of conservative voices, pundits, and institutions generated far less volume and snark than their liberal counterparts. “Got an awesome hug from the convention info lady at the terminal,” read an all-too-typical missive from one of the more prolific conservative tweeters, Jonah Goldberg.

The gap separating the convention I witnessed via right-wing media from the convention presented by mainstream media speaks to the very heart of this year’s presidential race. Watching a broadcast network or relying on the usual news organizations, you learned that the week was mostly devoid of the rhetoric and anger of the tea party (which was not mentioned by name from the podium during prime time, even by the tea-party champions Rand Paul and Ted Cruz) and was relatively restrained in its expected criticism of the president. The pugnacious Christie pulled his Obama punches, after all, and even Ryan’s tart Obama jabs were well within the traditional norm for vice-presidential attack dogs of either party. In his own speech, Romney went out of his way to credit his opponent for being a decent guy even as he faulted his leadership.

This was technically accurate. And it was certainly the story the GOP Establishment wanted the media to tell. Its gist was summed up by Karl Rove when evaluating Romney’s acceptance speech the morning after on Fox & Friends. Romney had succeeded, Rove said, because he had achieved “one of the big goals of this effort—to critique the president not in anger, not in malice, not hot but cool, reflective, polite, pointed and disappointed and regretful.” Or in other words: to placate the 6 percent of American voters thought to be in play, that ever-elusive band of Independents, centrists, undecideds, and suburban women who are said to like Obama but are also disappointed enough to consider firing him.

The mainstream media took the bait, presenting the convention at face value and portraying the GOP as more or less unified, civil, and semi-successful in convincing voters that its nominee shopped at Costco and loved his wife’s pancakes. The kinder, gentler tone of the GOP image reboot was also upheld rigorously at Fox. Neither the downsized Palin nor the yapping Fox & Friends hosts nor the alpha dogs Hannity and O’Reilly lapsed into the unhinged anti-Obama invective that had fueled the network’s growth back in the day when birtherism was a given, Obama was palling around with terrorists, and Jeremiah Wright was the go-to embodiment of the president’s seething hatred of America and subversive socialist ideology.

The only flaw in this placid picture was that if you ventured beyond both the mainstream media and Fox, you learned it bore little resemblance to the mood of much of the right. You also learned that many in the grassroots were infuriated by the media airbrushing, to put it mildly.

That fury, unsurprisingly, was articulated early by Limbaugh. At the start of convention week, he replayed a Bill Kristol admonition, delivered the day before on Fox News Sunday, that the convention had to advance a positive agenda. “So what he’s basically saying is, ‘Don’t make the convention about bashing Obama,’ ” was how Limbaugh translated Kristol’s advice. He was having none of it. “I think it’s been a trick the Democrats have used for decades, and I’m stunned that our side keeps falling for it,” he said. “The trick is: ‘These Independents don’t like criticism! They don’t like raised voices! They don’t like partisanship! It makes them nervous. And whenever the Republicans get critical of President Obama, these Independents just run right back to the Democrats and vote for them.’ I don’t believe that for a minute!”

Limbaugh’s disgruntlement proved mild compared to that of his radio peers. As Romney prepared to deliver his acceptance speech Thursday, Michael Savage was on fire during his early-evening broadcast. Declaring himself “sickened” by “the eunuchs in the Republican Party,” he derided the convention for ignoring issues like immigration and Afghanistan in favor of stunts like Ann Romney’s speech domesticating her husband (“Just what we need … a man who may be president, that he does his own laundry!”). He was scarcely more charitable toward Ryan’s, asking if any of the vice-presidential nominee’s fans could “remember one word” that he said. His contempt for the GOP Establishment was bottomless. “The drunken speech the other night by John Boehner was the beginning of the end,” Savage said. “The man slurred as though he was a janitor in a bar, not the speaker of the House of Representatives … Now you understand why the tea-party movement arose, and now you understand why they haven’t even mentioned the tea party … I have no idea what they stand for.” And he was still just warming up. “The Republicans have just dug their own grave,” he continued. “Unless Romney gets up there like a man and stops acting like a pocketbook carrier for his wife, he is finished.”

On Friday, Mark Levin was no less sour on his own popular evening show. After giving Romney credit for “a very solid speech” the night before, he too lamented the Establishment strategy of portraying Obama as “a nice guy who’s a failed president.” In Levin’s view, Obama is “a nasty, leftist ideologue” and to say otherwise is to emasculate the Republicans’ case against him. “Do we really have to be driven by focus groups, by Frank Luntz?” he asked. Noting the lousy convention ratings, he added: “If we’re trying to reach out to Reagan Democrats and Independents, apparently a lot of them weren’t watching.” Soon he was taking a call from a Republican election officer who was so put off by the convention that he said he would vote for Romney but not go door-to-door to corral others to do so.

It’s unlikely the caller was an anomaly. Away from the convention stage and from the mainstream media’s coverage of it, dissension of various stripes was rife throughout the GOP coalition. “How do you sell a party to Independents, let alone deliver the people who voted in the primaries, when there’s an important philosophical gap between the limited-government grassroots and a top of the ticket who campaigned on ‘rebuilding’ the military, restoring Medicare cuts, and shoring up Social Security?” was how Matt Welch put it at Elsewhere, in a brief floor fight that received scant and superficial coverage in the mainstream media at the start of the week, Limbaugh, Palin, Michelle Malkin, Christian conservatives, and various tea-party types had joined Ron Paul dissidents—not an everyday alliance—to protest new, restrictive ­delegate-selection rules muscled through by Romneyites at the Republican National Committee. In a furious missive, the umbrella tea-party organization Freedom Works declared that the GOP hierarchy’s power play offered “a sobering glimpse of what life will be like for conservatives in a Romney administration” and proved “once again that sometimes we have to beat the Republicans before we can beat the Democrats.”

You don’t have to agree with these people’s politics to see they have a compelling beef. They are true believers in a minimalist American government. They see Obama’s economic record as a golden opportunity to throw him out. They helped propel Ryan, a dogged champion of conservative ideals, onto the national ticket. And they saw all of that jeopardized by a Republican National Committee and Romney campaign that muted and dumbed down the message in its tightly disciplined, highly scripted game plan to win over the tiny and elusive percentage of American voters who hold no strong views at all. It’s no wonder that the only authentic moment in the convention was also its only improvised one. When Clint Eastwood implicitly inserted the words “Tell Romney to fuck himself” into the mouth of his imaginary “Obama,” he tapped, however artlessly, into the raw id of the right as nothing else in the convention did all week. For an instant, his off-message and off-script gesture of profane disrespect for the president captured the grassroots anger that went largely unacknowledged by the mainstream press and Fox alike.

Since Eastwood’s turn was perhaps the most replayed video of the entire convention, it may have done damage to the convention’s “more in sorrow than anger” political strategy—assuming that strategy was sound. On November 6, we’ll learn if the party Establishment and Romney campaign knew what they were doing by striking that pacifist tone, or whether the angry voices on the right who opposed them can say, “I told you so.” We’ll learn as well whether the Republican Party is on a path to revive the Reagan revolution or, as the blogger Doug Mataconis has it at Outside the Beltway, in a self-destructive tailspin mirroring that of “the Democratic Party in the wake of the Vietnam War.” Either way, I finished the week with sympathy for true believers on the right who are far more divorced from their own political party and the nation’s culture than even those on the left who are perennially disillusioned by Obama, the Democratic hierarchy, and their own journalistic Establishment. That anger is certain to rage long past Election Day, and if I learned anything in my week strolling around the conservative mind, it was that anyone who sticks to an exclusive diet of lamestream media is missing the news.

My Embed in Red